The Unsustainability of Sustainability

Read Believing the Truth, the sequel to Sunday’s Beyond Property. Also see Reaction to Synergic Containment. This morning’s essay is reposted from Culture Change.

Bill Devall

Sustainability is currently one of the most fashionable terms used by post-Marxist Progressives. The word sustainable has been slapped onto everything from sustainable forestry to sustainable agriculture, sustainable economic growth, sustainable development, sustainable communities and sustainable energy production.

The widespread use of the term indicates that many people conclude that the dominant, industrial models of production are unsustainable. However, sustainability has taken on numerous ideological hues and coloring and has been tacked onto the political agendas of diverse social movements including the feminist movement, Progressive movement, and social justice movement.

There are very few thoughtful discussions in these movements about the theory of sustainability.

Indeed some proponents of sustainability argue that we don’t need a theory of sustainability. We already know what it is and even if we don’t know, it is a motivating slogan for social change.

For example, Alan AtKisson, an articulate proponent of sustainability, says “the definition of sustainability is neither vague nor abstract; it is very specific and is tied to measurable criteria describing how resources are used and distributed. Some of what currently gets called ‘sustainable development’ is no such thing, but that does not mean the concept should be dismissed, any more than the concept of democracy should be dismissed when it is misappropriated by a dictatorship. Sustainability, like democracy, is an ideal toward which we strive, a journey more than a destination” (1999:200).

However, many critics argue that the political agendas and manipulations of Progressives, feminists, and social justice movements have so polluted and conflicted the idea of sustainability that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to rescue it for meaningful discussion.

At the very least, three difficult questions must be asked before any discussion of sustainability is undertaken in any group. What is being sustained? How long is it being sustained? In who’s interest is what being sustained?

We also must ask at what scale of action are we sustaining what? Are we talking about a global system or more regional or bioregional systems? Are we talking about natural systems or human institutions?

AtKisson, and other proponents of sustainability, argue that the sustainability movement is different from the environmental movement or the conservation movement. In the sustainability movement, progress comes from unleashing human creativity, redesigning everything, and using technology to serve the needs of the people.

Many Progressives and post-modern feminists assert that nature is a social creation. Nature is whatever humans want to make it. Therefore, human creativity can remake nature to more effectively serve human needs.

Conservation biologists, however, as well as most proponents of the conservation movement, assert that nature is real. When conservation biologists use the term sustainability, they refer to “ecological sustainability” meaning sustaining the self-organizing processes of natural systems. That means that humans live within the moods and rhythm of natural systems as part of the system, not masters of it.

In a sense, arguments over the meaning of sustainability reflect the battles that have been repeated over and over again between Progressives and Realists during the past two centuries. Ever since William Goodwin asserted the doctrine of Progress, Progressives have believe that the future will be better than the past because humans invent new technology and advance human rights. For many Progressives, nature must be molded to serve human needs.

Realists point to the fact that no human civilization has sustained itself for more than a few centuries. Civilizations overshoot the carrying capacity of their resource base, and due to changes in weather patterns, overcutting of forests, etc., go into decline. Sing Chew, professor of Sociology at Humboldt State University, documents this process from 3000 B.C. to 2000 A.D. in his book World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation (Chew, 2001).

In his article, “The Shaky Ground of Sustainability,” historian Donald Worster concludes that “like most popular slogans, sustainable development begins to wear thin after a while. Although it seems to have gained a wide acceptance, it has done so by sacrificing real substance. Worse yet, the slogan my turn out to be irredeemable for environmentalist use because it may inescapably compel us to adopt a narrow economic language, standard of judgment, and world view in approaching and utilizing the earth” (in Sessions, 1995:418).

Even more damning is Wolfgang Sachs conclusion that sustainability is the shadow of development. “Even bearing in mind a very loose definition of development, the anthropocentric bias of the statement springs to mind; it is not the preservation of nature’s dignity which is on the international agenda, but to extend human-centered utilitarianism to posterity” (in Sessions, 1995:434).

Neil Harrison, in his book Constructing Sustainable Development, concludes that sustainable development proposals are at least incomplete or impractical and at worst dangerously misleading (Harrison, 2001).

The use of contested meanings of sustainability among Progressives shows that they have remained dangerously anthropocentric, impractical, and that they have failed to address the moral ambiguities of both technology and their own ideological agendas.

Arne Naess, the famous philosopher who used the phrase deep, long-range ecology movement, concludes that the concept of sustainability can only be salvaged if “…(our discourse) rejects the monopoly of narrowly human and short-term argumentation patterns in favor of life-centered long-term arguments. It also rejects the human-in-environment metaphor in favor of a more realistic human-in-ecosystems and politics-in-ecosystems one. It generalizes more eco-political issues: from ‘resources’ to ‘resources for…’: from ‘life quality’ to ‘life quality for…’: from ‘consumption’ to ‘consumption for…'” where ‘for…’ is, we insert ‘not only humans, but other living beings’ ” (in Sessions, 1995:452).

Currently, cultural and social change is occurring very rapidly, and if Professor Sing Chew is correct, these changes may mean we are headed towards a new dark ages during which human population decreases rapidly and accumulation of capital radically decreases. In the past, during so-called dark ages of human civilizations, nature was able to renew its vitality after centuries of abuse by human civilizations. However, past civilizations were regional in location. Humans have never before experienced a globalized civilization which is causing massive human-caused extinctions of other species and human-caused massive changes in global climate patterns.

What can we expect in political discourse? Progressives continue to attack the Realists as they have for two hundred years. However, perhaps Progressives will give up their anthropocentric bias and their belief in human Progress and embrace a systems approach.

At the very least, Progressives could stop slapping the word sustainable onto every harebrained scheme and political agenda that is currently fashionable or politically correct.

Most likely Progressives will continue to assert that if the people can control corporations or control the WTO or the World Bank, then we can have “sustainable development.” And they will continue to miss the whole point about the unsustainability of sustainability.


AtKisson, Alan. Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist’s World. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 1999.

Chew, Sing. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. -2000 A.D. Walnut Creek, Ca: AltaMira Press, 2001.

Harrison, Neil. Constructing Sustainable Development. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Sessions, George. ed. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the New Environmentalism. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.

Bill Devall currently is a consultant to the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco and Professor Emeritus in Sociology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. Devall is a well-known lecturer and author, most notably (with George Sessions) of the influential book, Deep Ecology (1985), and Simple in Means, Rich in Ends (1988), Living Richly in an Age of Limits (1992), and Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Logging (1993). He is completing a book on bioregional politics and culture, Bioregion on the Edge. E-mail:

Reposted from Culture Change.